History of the Piano
The history of piano playing began with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Muzio Clementi during the Classical Period.
During the Romantic Period, Franz Liszt was wildly popular throughout Europe. Women would faint during his piano recitals and some threw jewels onto the stage. Liszt was one of the first stage idols and he was the first ever to perform solo recitals. Clara Wieck Schumann was the first recitalist to play from memory. Now it is commonplace for recitalists to feel they, too, must play without using any written music.
During the twentieth century, pianists such as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Vladimir Horowitz and Artur Rubenstein have been very popular in the United States.
Even though electric musical instruments were being developed before 1900, Robert Moog's synthesizer, developed in 1964, helped these new instruments gain in popularity. Instruments were developed with more capabilities, lower prices and became even more portable.
All major manufacturers now make their instruments compatible through the use of MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) so that sharing information is much easier. Digital pianos, electronic keyboards and computers are becoming much more commonplace in music teaching and performing. The O'Connor Music Studio has five electronic keyboards and two computers available for such use.
It's impossible to imagine life without the piano. The automobile,
the computer and the pizza, maybe, but not the pianoforte. Since
its invention in Italy around 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristofori, a
keeper of musical instruments for the Medici, it has become
indispensable to our survival as a civilized people. What else,
after all, has enriched society in so many different ways?
It's not only a versatile musical instrument but
also a striking work of decorative art, a
handsome piece of furniture, a complex product
that generated a worldwide industry, a status
symbol, a prop for Presidents (Harry Truman)
and performers (Liberace), a muse for classical
composers and Tin Pan Alley songwriters alike
and, not to be overlooked, a constant reminder
for millions of fledgling pianists that there is
more to life than pleasure — namely, practicing.
Over the years, the piano's impact has been as impressive as its
size. It has been called "the single great factor in the development
of musical art and the dissemination of musical knowledge."
During the mid-1800s, it was the embodiment of Victorian
attitudes toward music. In the early 1900s, it became a symbol
of domestic bliss in the middle-class American home, where
"Give us a tune, Sis," was an oft-heard request. Today it
continues to command esteem among players and nonplayers all
over the world. Everybody who enjoys music (and who
doesn't?) loves the piano.
Elaborating on that theme, the National Museum of American
History opens a fascinating exhibition on March 9, "Piano 300:
Celebrating Three Centuries of People and Pianos." The show
features some two dozen historic pianos, including one by
Cristofori and the rectangular 1850 Chickering.
The exhibition will run through March 4, 2001, at the
Smithsonian International Gallery.
By Jim Doherty, In Praise of Pianos . . .
In May 1975, Arthur Rubinstein, at
88 still one of the world's top concert
pianists, returned for the last time to
his birthplace, the Polish industrial
city of Lodz. Not a seat or an inch of
standing room was free in the Grand
Theater as he launched into a
typically demanding concerto
program. No sooner had the last thunderous notes sounded than
the stage was flooded with a sea of carnations, the audience
cheered itself hoarse, the orchestra rose to applaud. As he had
done throughout his long career, writes Rudolph Chelminski, the
old maestro had his listeners wound around his little finger,
demonstrating once again the power of the mysterious bond that
ties a great concert pianist to his public.
Franz Liszt, granddaddy of the profession,
drove his audiences to such fits of hysteria
that ladies would hurl their jewels up onto
the stage, shrieking and swooning, reports
Chelminski. But it was Beethoven, as much
as anyone, who set the standard for
flamboyance. Once, when Beethoven was
playing a new concerto of his with an
orchestra in Vienna, he forgot that he was a solo player, and
springing up, began to direct in his usual way. At the first
sforzando he threw out his arms so wide that he knocked both
the candles off the piano upon the ground. Two boys were
deputized to take the candles off the piano and hold them, but at
the next appearance of the fatal sforzando, one received
Beethoven's backhand right in the kisser and dropped the
candlestick clattering to the stage.
There is no formula, says Chelminski, for becoming a maestro,
but a distinguishing characteristic is that maestros almost always
begin as child prodigies. Mozart, for instance, began at the
harpsichord at age 3, began composing at 5 and touring at 6.
Maddeningly, only a few prodigies deliver on their early promise.
But luckily for us, as long as there are pianos, these promising
musical geniuses keep springing up. The National Museum of
American History illuminates the history of the instrument that has
inspired these maestros in a fascinating exhibition opening March
9, "PIANO 300: Celebrating Three Centuries of People and
When Polish pianist Ignace Paderewski toured America, he
became a celebrity — and boosted Steinway
Its gleaming black frame perches with
dignity on three fluted columns. The ivories
are white, all bloodstains now carefully
removed. Only the inscription under the lid
of Steinway concert grand No. 71227 at
the National Museum of American History
— a few words in black ink scrawled onto
gilt metal — bears testimony to a trying
musical tour and the great musician who
survived it: "This piano has been played by
me during the season 1892-1893 in seventy-five concerts. I. J.
Today Paderewski is often recalled not for his music but for his
famous epigram about diligence: "If I don't practice for one day,
I know it; if I don't practice for two days, the critics know it; if I
don't practice for three days, the audience knows it." By 1892,
though, Paderewski was more than a great pianist; he was a
mass-market wonder who inspired ad campaigns for shampoos,
candy, soaps and party treats, even a windup toy of a little man
frenetically pounding his little piano. "Paddymania," a London
newspaper gasped, "has reached such heights that three New
York ladies have embroidered musical phrases from [his] Minuet
on their stockings."
Paderewski's triumphal assault on America started with a
recommendation to William Steinway from an agent in London,
urging him to sign a young Polish pianist for a U.S. tour. Ignace
himself arrived in New York on November 1891, only to be
gloomily greeted at dockside by Steinway representative Charles
Tretbar bearing grim tidings. "You have had brilliant successes in
London and Paris," Tretbar declared, "but let me tell you, Mr.
Paderewski, you need not expect anything like that here in
America.... We are not easily pleased here." Famous last words.
A grueling schedule put Paderewski through 107 concerts in just
117 days. Concerts often lasted for hours, but they included
encores to appease the roaring applause. In an era when solo
piano recitals were uncommon, Paderewski packed concert halls
everywhere he went. But the tour nearly ended his career. In
Rochester, New York, he walked onto the stage and struck the
opening chords of Beethoven's Appassionata. Immediately, a
scorching pain shot up his right arm as if something had
shattered. He kept playing and managed to finish the concert.
But he had seriously injured his hand on the stiff hammer action
of the Steinway. He had often complained lightly about the
"dangerous" action, cheerfully referring to the piano as "my
enemy." But after Rochester he played in constant pain, needing
massages and jolts of electricity before concerts just to get his
injured finger to move. Doctors warned of permanent damage,
but Paderewski insisted on honoring his pledge, even though it
meant teaching himself to play with just four fingers of his right
hand. He never recovered full use of his ring finger.
But the 1891-92 tour was a tremendous boon for Steinway &
Sons, which had been thriving ever since Heinrich Steinweg left
Seesen, Germany, in 1850 and settled his piano-making business
in New York City. Piano technology was a growth industry, and
the Steinways were at the hot center. Tinkerers had been
improving on Bartolomeo Cristofori's pianoforte since the early
1700s. Heinrich's son, Henry Jr., opened the lid on every piano
he came across, looking for new ideas, among them the use of a
cast-iron frame for holding heavy-gauge strings under enormous
tension, which gave a more brilliant and powerful sound. Henry
improved the metal frame's shape, rearranged the strings for a
richer tones, made the soundboard more vibrant and improved
the piano's responsiveness to the musician, logging seven patents
in the process. By the time of his death in 1865 at 34, he'd
essentially created the modern piano. His brother Theodor filed
another 45 patents.
Each Steinway concert grand that emerged from the original
factory in Manhattan was a masterpiece of some 40,000 parts,
including screws, and the product of 300 craftsmen.
In their advertising, the Steinways capitalized on Americans' love
of technology, but for renown, they set their sights on
demonstrations at Europe's great expositions, which also
functioned as trade shows. Pianists played each piano on
display, and judges awarded prizes for quality. National pride
was often at stake. At the 1867 Paris Exposition, the Steinway
competed with more than 400 pianos and took a gold medal.
The Steinway triumph shifted the center of piano making from
Europe to the New World. In 1890, Steinway & Sons made
more than 2,300 pianos, part of a national industry that
produced more than 150,000. From its roots as an amusement
for the rich, the piano had become a token of respectability for
all households, and the home entertainment center of the late
1800s. After Henry Jr.'s death, it was brother William Steinway,
more than Theodor, who saw that artists' endorsements could
broaden the market further. William started as the "bellyman" of
the business — the person who installed the soundboard — and
ended as a captain of industry. He paid touring musicians well
but imposed a factory-like schedule on their performances. The
tour he set in 1872 for the legendary Russian pianist Anton
Rubinstein left Rubinstein swearing never to return to America.
Paderewski, despite his injuries, found a second Steinway tour
Paderewski was an exotic 32-year-old European widower
whose poverty-stricken childhood was romantically embellished
by ancient connections to nobility. He was no brooding artist,
however, but a man with a disarming sense of humor. His
appearance cast a spell of its own: pale, even features, dramatic
cheekbones and an unruly mane of reddish-gold hair.
Acquaintances often likened his effect to electricity. "He is
electric as life," said one woman. Another pianist marveled at
how Paderewski's "presence illuminated that room ...as though a
blinding light had been turned on." The press seized on his
dramatic plumage as a focus: a Philadelphia hack wrote, "It was
only a feather duster / But she worshiped it, she said, / For its
fascinating likeness / To Paderewski's head." "There's Music in
the Hair!" chortled a New York headline. "Matinee Girls on
Rampage!" warned another.
The eye of the storm was a deeply insecure performer who had
begun formal study late, with a fingering technique that made his
piano teachers groan. A London reviewer named George
Bernard Shaw caught Paderewski's first concerts in London and
alternated between scorn and praise. Shaw mockingly hailed "the
immensely spirited young harmonious blacksmith" and his playing
as "a brutal fantasia on the theme of the survival of the fittest."
But Shaw also conceded Paderewski's genius for interpretation.
Other critics agreed. "There are many persons who shun piano
recitals as intolerable bores," wrote Henry Finck, music critic for
the New York Evening Post, "but who never miss a Paderewski
concert because when he plays, Bach and Beethoven are no
longer riddles to them but sources of pleasure."
Paderewski launched his second American tour in late 1892 on a
Steinway with improved action. This time around, he enjoyed his
own private railcar with room for his secretary, valet, piano
tuner, manager, chef and two porters. Crowds gathered at
railroad crossings for a glimpse as he passed. He, in turn, was
fascinated by his American audiences, who greeted him as
"Paderooski" instead of "Paderevski." In Kansas City, he
marveled as several hundred Texans arrived, all clutching
volumes of music. "They crowded the hotels," he recalled later,
"they gathered in clusters at the street corners, and they stood in
line in front of the box office — all with their music in hand." He
ate nothing on the day of a performance and worked out with
dumbbells every morning. He practiced endlessly as well, to
quell his nervousness.
There were some trials, too. Because nothing could keep him
from the concert stage long enough for it to heal, a scratched
finger grew infected under the relentless pressure of playing.
During a performance the bandaged finger opened and blood
seeped onto the keyboard. "I soon got accustomed to it," he
admitted. "During the rest of that tour ... the keyboard was
always red when I finished."
That tour netted him a princely $160,000. After four extra
concerts to benefit charities, he was ready to return to Europe,
only pausing long enough to play at the opening of the Chicago
World's Fair, generously offering to forgo his fee as a tribute to
his affection for bustling Chicago. That proved a mistake.
Chicago's piano makers prided themselves on their superiority to
East Coast outfits like Steinway and hoped that the fair's piano
competition would prove their point. That seemed likely, since
the contest was to be decided by just one judge: Florenz
Ziegfeld, father of the Ziegfeld Follies impresario and head of the
Chicago Musical College. As it happened, Chicago piano mogul
W. W. Kimball sat on the board of Ziegfeld's college. The
Steinways and other Eastern piano makers were outraged by this
plan and caused a fuss by pulling out of the competition.
Midwestern pianos, the New York Times sniped, "ill sound much
better when they are not compared with the pianos of Boston
and Baltimore and New York." Chicagoans responded by
banning from the fair's stages any piano not entered in the
contest. And that ran smack into Paderewski's agreement to play
With rumors flying and just days before President Grover
Cleveland was to inaugurate the fair, Paderewski held firm.
"Throughout the wide world, any artist is permitted to use the
instrument of his choice," he announced, "and I do not
understand why I should be forced to play an instrument of a
manufacturer strange to me." Negotiations were still angrily
proceeding when he reached the fairgrounds. Attempts to solve
the piano stalemate embroiled a national commission and a piano
committee and gave rise to some hopeless suggestions, one
being that during his performance Paderewski rotate between
several onstage pianos. On the morning of the day of the opening
concert, fair officials decreed that the Music Hall was separate
from the official Chicago World's Fair and so not bound by its
rules. Paderewski could play his Steinway.
Still nursing an infected finger, he took the stage. Wind whipped
through the unfinished hall. William Steinway, confined to a
sickbed in New York, had followed Paderewski's progress by
cables. His May 2 diary entry notes proudly, "Paderewski
played at the Chicago Fair on Steinway grand in spite of all the
opposition." Days later Paderewski sailed back to Europe. In his
wake, he left a swirl of Steinway condemnations in the Chicago
papers, and crowds that stretched around the block to see the
piano he had played, which was on view in the Chicago
In his future, which lasted until 1941, when he died at 80, lay an
even greater career as statesman — and patriot. He was
Poland's premier in 1919 and the revered elder statesman of the
Polish government in exile, defending the hopes of his country,
overrun by Nazi and Soviet armies, with the same fiery
determination and passion he had brought to his brilliant
American piano tours.
By David Taylor, Paderewski's Piano
When I was about 17, persuaded by arguments whose
logic I have long since driven from memory (the guilty party
must have been either my mother, who never sang a note,
or my elder brother, who rather enjoyed bellowing), I
briefly took singing lessons. One-on-one with Grace
Lamarr in her Westport studio, I would assume the
regulation posture — facing out toward the "audience," one
hand demurely resting on the piano, the other at my chest in
a kind of Presidential salute — and wreak cultural
vandalism on Stephen Foster, Schubert or Mozart.
The only lasting knowledge I carried away from the
experience was that "Il mio tesoro" could not possibly be
sung by any normally constituted human being, unless Don
Ottavio happened to have a wind tunnel built into his
thorax. Mercifully for all, my career as an operatic tenor
ended before I celebrated my 18th birthday.
A couple of decades later, fortuitous circumstance led me
back in the direction of musical education — not for me
this time but for my son. The fortuitous circumstance was
named Nicole de Havilland-Cortes. She was a pianist who
specialized in plunging kids into a bath of hot Bach. "The
younger you get 'em, the better," she said in her
business-like way "then full speed ahead! They'll get turned
off to music forever if you try to pound scales and
sight-reading into them. Just make them play, and
everything else will come later."
Even age 3? "But yes," cried Mme. de Havilland-Cortes.
"Perfect!" And so it was that our son became a child
Well, in a manner of speaking. At 3, he had the advantage
of up to 15 years over Mme. de Havilland-Cortes' other
students, and everyone in show biz knows there's no
competing with an animal or a kid. With his little blond
head, his big blue eyes and his tiny feet suspended in midair
from the piano stool, all it took was the first six notes (the
slow ones) of Bach's unfinished fugue to knock any
My wife and I made all the predictable noises that parents
will make: "You don't suppose, I mean, um, that he really
might be, well, uh, a prodigy?" Parents are such suckers.
I'd be willing to bet right now that, at this very instant, there
are at least a million couples around the world asking
themselves the same question after hearing their darling's
violin squawk or clarinet squeak for the first time.
We encouraged Romy, of course, and played him endless
hours of classical music. He insisted on having the record
cover in his hands as he listened, so he could look at the
picture. One of his favorite pieces was Prokofiev's
"Lieutenant Kije Suite," even though the only picture on the
cover was a big black-and-white photograph of Prokofiev,
bald, bespectacled and benign. Presently we saw how
deeply that image had worked its way into Romy's brain.
"Look!" he piped up urgently one afternoon as we were
driving to town. "There's Prokofiev on a motor scooter."
Sure enough, a balding, bespectacled little man, benign of
appearance, was weaving through the traffic.
That year Romy told us he wanted a wig for Christmas. Of
course! Every picture of Bach on the record covers
showed him wearing a wig. Did we actually go and look
for one? We certainly did. Luckily a Star Wars spaceship
came along that struck Romy's fancy even more, and we
were spared the embarrassment of having our 3-year-old
toddling around the neighborhood in an oversize white wig.
Romy's total immersion in music so thoroughly jumbled
present and past, reality and imagination that it occasionally
spooked visitors unfamiliar with his juvenile
Weltanschauung. In the middle of his brief but
all-consuming Chopin binge, a lady bent down to him,
cooing: "And when did you start listening to these
mazurkas, you sweet little boy?"
"When I was dead in Poland," he shot back, poker-faced.
Inevitably, the day came when we had to buy Romy his
own piano. A mere upright wouldn't do, naturally —
concertistes don't play on uprights — and it had to be
white, because one of those record covers featured a white
piano. We took out a loan and got a baby grand. What
Next, it turned out, was the beginning of the end of
prodigyhood. As the years passed and Romy's feet grew
closer to the floor, the moment arrived when he had to start
reading music, doing scales and practicing-in short,
working. That changed everything. That was boring. By the
time Romy's feet reached all the way to the floor, my wife
was playing that white piano more than he was.
Well, you may turn them off Bach but not necessarily
everything else. We discovered that a few years later,
when that great clanging freight train called adolescence
arrived. Romy went back to music after all, but not quite as
we had figured ten or so years earlier. He discovered rock.
Romy's in Boston now, studying to be a professional. He's
practicing scales and reading notes. His instruments are
electric guitars and synthesizers, and his daily references
are not Johann Sebastian and Wolfgang Amadeus but Bon
Jovi and Sting. His big old LP records have been replaced
by compact disks, which come in those teeny-weeny
boxes on which no kid will ever be able to see a
The white baby grand? It's all paid for now — and hardly
By Rudolph Chelminski, Guess what my li'l Chopin played today
Many thanks to
Dearest for everything!